Penguin Soup for the Soul

Foreword by Christopher Hitchens

Why was Primary Colors (the movie, I mean) such a flop at the box office? And why does This Modern World continue to get itself clipped and passed on by a growing number of readers who are too cheap to send their friends a proper subscription to the ever-fewer mainstream, and shamefully few non-mainstream, magazines which continue to run the work of Tom Tomorrow?

In other words, all the answers above are correct. This Modern World is a continuous "yeah, right" to the stream of sinister piffle that is directed at us from page and screen. It takes the pifflers literally and at face value, and is thus -- to rescue a degraded term -- always committing irony.

When I was a lad, the sturdy penguin was a symbol of learning; the paperback guarantee that the treasurehouse of the world's finest minds was available to all for pennies. More progress followed, and by the election year 1992, for example, members of my own favored generation had been so cognitively empowered that they were able to say things like: "Time for a change" and "it's the economy, stupid" as if they had thought of these all by themselves. Some of us felt the need for a touch of market correction: a slight uptick in the critical faculty quotient that isn't, but should be, one of our leading indicators. And the hour brought forth the man. You've tried Monday, Monday and Ruby Tuesday and The Man Who Was Thursday and Billy Sunday. But Senor Manana and Monsieur Demain will always be one news-cycle ahead. Yet Mr. Tomorrow achieves this effect by a form of in retro fertilisation, drawing his images and characters from the epoch of trust and innocence and artless advertising -- the time when Walter Cronkite could say "that's the way it is tonight," and Ronald Reagan could advertise Chesterfield smokes and Van Heusen wrinkle-free shirts, and schoolchildren could be taught the "duck and cover" drill for those thermonuclear episodes that might spoil your entire day.

To mine the age of credulity in order to satirise our own present (so smart and so wised up, and yet so stupid and so superstitious) is to show some interest in history and even tradition. Well, mercy me. I live in "historic" Washington, and the cartoonist of our home-town rag feels he's done that job if he shows the reproachful ghost of Abe Lincoln in a stovepipe hat -- plus the word "Lincoln" written on his pants to make sure nobody misses it -- or shows a donkey and an elephant in mortal combat to illustrate the latest "partisan" sham fight. Over the braying jackass and the trumpeting pachyderm, who should never be depicted except when writhing in obscene and unlawful congress, give me a sardonic penguin every time. Or a talking stomach -- which may be (I can dream too, can't I?) Mr. Tomorrow's publishable version of the eloquent sphincter that spoke so feelingly in Naked Lunch.

Let me call your attention to the fact that many of these cartoons represent reportage, and that Tom Tomorrow actually took his pad and pencil out to the field, and listened as well as drew, and in this respect also put many fashionable doodlers, like the over-rated houseboy who brought us the innocuous Dilbert, to a shame they will probably never feel.

These drawings will help preserve the record of the Clinton-Gingrich co-presidency, and will show future generations that there was a sort of united front against bullshit, and that all you had to do was volunteer. If I have a criticism, it is that the punchline in these following frames is often unnecessary. Let the bastards hang themselves with their own rope, is what I tend to say. Yet who can quarrel with the view that it's best to ensure that the rope is tightly knotted?

I have spent much of a lifetime trying to prove that one word is worth any number of pictures, but the united front of words and pictures in the ensuing pages is as vital as the other united front I mentioned above. May Tomorrow always come.

Christopher Hitchens

May Day 1998